Robert Frost's Going For Water Analysis

Going For Water

Introduction

As the title suggests, the speaker and their companion are sent on an adventure with their “pail and can” to collect water from a brook located somewhere in the woods. Their journey takes them from the safety of their home and their familiar fields into a landscape of joyful freedom and exciting uncertainty.

Going For Water

The well was dry beside the door,
And so we went with pail and can
Across the fields behind the house
To seek the brook if still it ran;

Not loth to have excuse to go,
Because the autumn eve was fair
(Though chill) because the fields were ours,
And by the brook our woods were there.

We ran as if to meet the moon
That slowly dawned behind the trees,
The barren boughs without the leaves,
Without the birds, without the breeze.

But once within the wood, we paused
Like gnomes that hid us from the moon,
Ready to run to hiding new
With laughter when she found us soon.

Each laid on other a staying hand
To listen ere we dared to look,
And in the hush we joined to make
We heard—we knew we heard—the brook.

A note as from a single place,
A slender tinkling fall that made
Now drops that floated on the pool
Like pearls, and now a silver blade.

Growing Up

The poem begins with a reference to the well “beside the door” being “dry” and ends with an image of water drops floating on the “pool” until they freeze into a “silver blade”. The story arc progresses from the comfort of the speaker’s home, signified by the “door”, to the more dangerous and exotic woodland.

The characters in the story are children who are eager explore the world and their imagination through play. Even though fetching water is often considered a chore, the speaker is “not loth to have excuse to go”. It is worth noting that the poem is written in loose iambic tetrameter with a abcb rhyme scheme. There is a child-like rhythm created by these short lines of eight syllables with the rhyme always pushing towards the end of each stanza with a tone of excitement and anticipation.

The speaker must venture into this new world because there is no longer any water available in the old well. This could be an analogy for childhood – we can only learn so much at home and we need to leave that safe space behind to find ourselves in the world.

Setting

This is a story describing the children going for water so the title positions the reader’s attention towards the journey rather than the poem’s ambivalent conclusion. Perhaps, Frost wants us to consider the importance of the past rather than the bleak present. This is especially true since he wrote the poem for his wife to celebrate the wonderful moment they shared when they explored Hayla Brook.

However, the poet sets up the ambivalent ending with the inclusion of several hints. For example, the “well was dry beside our door” would imply its source might also be dry. In fact, the speaker questions “if” the brook is “still” flowing. If the fourth line is delivered in iambic tetrameter, then the stress falls on the adverb “still”:

To seek | the brook | if still | it ran

Notice how Frost manipulates the syntax of the clause by shifting the word “still” to emphasise the uncertainty. The line could easily have been written as “to seek the brook if it still ran” but the rhythm would not achieve the same impact. In this context, the word refers the idea of the “brook” continuing to flow, but it can also mean to be motionless when used as an adjective or verb. In this way, the poet creates an interesting paradox between “still” and “ran” and foreshadows the poem’s conclusion.

Of course, the third foot in this example could be a spondee so the stress also falls on the adverb “if”. Again, this would reinforce the speaker’s doubt.

Other examples are not as subtle. In the second stanza, the speaker describes the “autumn eve” as “fair”, but they also include “though chill” in parenthesis. It is a pleasant evening and the colder weather goes almost unnoticed. It is as if the speaker wants to ignore the threat of winter and focus on the exciting journey into the woods.

Comprehension Questions

  1. What do you think Frost was hoping to achieve with the title?
  2. What might the “dry” well signify in the opening line?
  3. Frost notes that the “well” is “beside the door”. What might the proximity of the “door” to the speaker’s house symbolise?
  4. The speakers take their “pail and can”. In a poem heavy with symbolism, what might these objects symbolise?
  5. How does the speaker feel about fetching water at the start of the second stanza? Explore lines five to seven in detail, especially how he describes the weather and the fields.
  6. What impression is created of the speaker in the hyperbole “we ran as if to meet the moon”?
  7. What technique does Frost use to draw the reader’s attention to the “barren boughs”? Why might the poet want to emphasise the setting?
  8. Frost repeats the word “without” three times in the third stanza. What impact does this triplet have on the reader?
  9. The speaker moves into the “woods” from the “fields”. What might this transition signify?
  10. Explore the effect of the simile in the fourth stanza that compares the children to“gnomes”.
  11. Suggest why the poet personifies the moon in the fourth stanza.
  12. How do the children feel at the end of the fourth stanza?
  13. Why do the children hold hands at the start of the fifth stanza? Has the mood changed or have they learnt something about each other?
  14. Suggest why the poet compares water drops to “pearls” in the final stanza.
  15. Why does he then compare the drops to “silver blades”? Why is this an effective metaphor?
  16. How does the form of the poem reinforce its themes?

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